Business Musings: Bestselling Feet And Other Thoughts

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A few nights ago, I walked past Dean’s office and heard him chuckling evilly at his computer. I thought nothing of it: he chuckles like that when he’s writing something off-beat—and he usually writes something off-beat.

But as I passed, he said, “Rusch! Get in here! You have to see this!”

He was on his internet computer, reading a blog post by Brent Underwood of Brass Check, a “creative advisory firm.” Apparently Underwood has felt the same frustration the rest of us have felt over the past few years about bestseller lists.

The title of his post? “Behind The Scam: What Does It Take To Be A Bestselling Author? $3 And 5 Minutes.”

Go read this post. It is chuckle-worthy because, as a successful marketer and publicist, Underwood knows how to write. He’s not that great at researching, though. Ignore his history of the bestseller lists, because it’s so far off that I was verbally arguing with it as I read it.

(For example, here are just two mistakes in that paragraph: National bestseller lists have existed since the turn of the twentieth century. See Michael Korda’s Making The List: A Cultural History of The American Bestseller. And the Wall Street Journal list did not start in 2009—because I made that list in the 1990s.)

However, the opening sentence of that paragraph is spot-on:

It used to be a real mark of distinction to hit the best-seller lists–because there were fewer lists and fewer authors (and before ebooks, pricing across books was pretty universal as well).

Bestseller lists are advertising tools. That’s all they are. Yes, they’re a “mark of distinction,” in that, by some measure, a lot of people bought a particular book. As Underwood also notes in his piece, the name-brand lists can all be manipulated and are, much to the frustration of those of us whose unacceptable books outsold books higher on the same list.

The real thrust of Underwood’s article is pretty simple: the proliferation of “bestsellers” has made the term meaningless. What makes Underwood’s post chuckle-worthy is how he proved it.

He published an ebook called “Putting My Foot Down,” which was just a photograph of his foot. He took the picture, uploaded it as a book, ran it through Amazon’s KDP channel, published the book, placed some obscure tags on it, priced it at 99 cents, and asked his mother and a friend to buy a copy. He bought a copy as well.

Shortly there after, Amazon’s algorithms made him a “bestseller” in those obscure subgenres. Three whole sales.

Go look. He has screen shots on the blog.

I’ve been complaining about this very thing for years now. It started when I was startled to see that I had hit some obscure Amazon bestseller list with one of my short stories—which had sold seven copies because I had just put it up for free on my website. (Putting stories free for one week on my website often inspires sales that same week. People know the free story will go away, so if they like the story, they buy it so they can read it later.)

I was stunned to see that bestseller listing—which I’ve never used, by the way, because it was just silly. And it wasn’t the first time, or the last, that this has happened to me. Not just on Amazon, but on Kobo, and in the iBookstore and other places.

I’ve missed ebook bestseller lists in other categories, however, even after selling hundreds of books in a particular day, again because of the algorithms. I might have come into that list against, say, a Stephen King release. His book will sell thousands in a day, blowing my hundreds in a day out of the water.

Let me be clear here, though. I’m really pleased to hit these tiny subgenre lists. They are advertising, just like they’re supposed to be. If some reader wants to find a book in that particular subgenre, the reader will often look to see what the 100 top-selling books are—particularly on Amazon, which has millions of titles.

This doesn’t work as well on Barnes and Noble. A short story of mine, “Cat Nap,” has been on their cat cozy bestseller list for years. That story sells between one copy per day and one copy every three days. I just checked and today, it is #25 on the cat cozy list, and it sold one copy this morning. In the spirit of Underwood’s article, here’s the screen shot of the list.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 2.27.57 PM

The story doesn’t sell that well anywhere else. In fact, we changed the cover on other sites a long time ago, because this is one of our early covers. Dean might even have designed it. But we’re not touching that story on B&N because we don’t want to risk screwing up the algorithm.

The Old Cover
The Old Cover


The New Cover
The New Cover

“Cat Nap” never hit a list on the other ebook sites, but the story consistently earns its $1.94 per sale on B&N, totaling anywhere from $20 to $60 per month on that site alone. We’re not messing with it. Is $20 to $60 per month worth that kind of (in)attention?

Let me put it to you this way: I wrote “Cat Nap” as a favor for an editor friend. He had writers pull out of an anthology he was editing. He needed a name author, but he couldn’t pay for one. He asked me because, he said, “I know you can write this fast and I’m not taking a lot of your time for very little money.”

He paid me $150, which is and was way below my usual rate for a story of that length. We made sure the contract didn’t take any rights except First North American.

In the past, that $150 would have been the only money I made on that short story, unless I actively tried to get it reprinted somewhere. Now I earn $150 on that story every three to six months in one online bookstore—and I have been doing so for years. That doesn’t count the sales anywhere else or the sales of the story to reprint or the fact that its online availability has led to some subrights sales. I have earned at least $300 per year on that story from B&N for the past 3 years. From B&N only, $900 on a story that hadn’t seen the light of day in years before that.

The only reason it continues to sell like that on B&N? The bestseller list advertising.

Bestseller list advertising has changed, just like everything else in this modern publishing world. It’s not the world that Underwood and I once knew.

He believes that everyone who has hit these small bestseller lists and uses “bestselling” author to be a scam artist. There are a lot of those scam artists out there, especially the folks whom he calls out—the ones who write the “how to hit a bestseller list” book. (He’s worried about them because they cut into his business, which is focused around [ahem] hitting bestseller lists.)

Most of the people I see using the “bestselling author” tag are actual writers. Indie writers, who have legitimately received that #1 bestselling author banner on their books. They are bestsellers—maybe in some small category, but they have achieved that status.

I don’t know how they feel, though, when they realize that they achieved it with only seven books or twenty books sold. I know how I feel. If I notice, I don’t mess with the book in any way. But other than that, it’s a shrug.

For some newer writers, though, that’s the only encouragement they’ve had on their work. I don’t blame them for owning it.

Other indie writers have hit these Amazon and other company bestseller lists with hundreds of books sold or thousands of books sold. Many of my friends have hit the USA Today Bestseller list for a particular week because of their indie book sales. A few have hit The New York Times ebook list the same way, which I have to admit, is really impressive, given how hard the Times works to make sure no indie book, especially one that sells for less than $9.99, hits that list.

The problem, though, is what Underwood points to. Calling yourself a bestseller isn’t old-world special any more. Readers have no idea if a writer has hit the list with five sales or five thousand.

It’s taken some revision of thinking in my head to cope with this for me, personally. I missed the New York Times list several times in the 1990s with books that sold over 50,000 copies in a week. My first romance novel under Kristine Grayson, Utterly Charming, missed all the lists, including the USA Today list (which tracks actual sales as opposed to sales from “selected approved” channels) with first week sales of 30,000 copies—and I expected to miss the list then, because, in them thare days, 30,000 first-week sales of mass market paper was low. Not cancel-your-contract low, but romance low. For a brand new pen name, however, the sales were stellar, and we were all happy.

But those are the numbers I’m used to. Now, in the off-season (right now, for instance), I’ve seen big name writers hit the New York Times list with fewer than 10,000 sales in a week. I know indie writers who hit the USA Today list with 7,000 sales in a week.

It took a long time for me to wrap my head around the idea that mountains had become hills. Because of the proliferation of books that readers want to read, the bigger bestsellers sell fewer copies in their first week than they did twenty years ago.

This is a good thing for indie writers—for all of us, really. My reading habits have changed. I’ll bet yours have as well. I don’t buy a book when I see it any more. I put it on my wish list or mark it for future purchase, because I can.

Books are no longer produce. They remain in print and available for more than a month in 2016, as opposed to 1996. In 1996, you had to buy that book right then or you might never get the chance to do so. That’s not a worry any more.

And that slackening of velocity, the fact that there’s no real urgency to buy any book (except maybe spoilery things from your friends), has cut the bestseller lists in half.

Still, bestseller lists are great advertising, if you use them in a 2016 context, not a 1996 context. The problem Underwood has here (aside from the siphoning off of his business) is that his job has become exponentially harder. Now, you can’t stamp “bestselling author” on a book and have it mean increased sales on a large scale. It’s not a gold stamp of approval.

What the bestseller lists do now, on online platforms, is inform the reader that a book is available. That’s why “Cat Nap” sells better on Barnes & Noble than it does on any other site. Because readers who want cat cozies find it relatively easily.

“Cat Nap” isn’t the only short story of mine that routinely hits a list on one online bookstore and doesn’t hit lists anywhere else. I have a bunch of short stories that have a similar life in other countries or other stores. Mostly I ignore it. I have too much in print to pay attention to each and every story or book or collection.

The only reason I know about this one is because the cover frustrates the heck out of Allyson Longuiera who designs WMG’s covers. She wants to swap it out, and she won’t as long as the story continues to do well.

There’s a flip side to those lower bestseller list numbers that I mentioned above. Money. And I’m not talking about the kind of money I’ve been earning on “Cat Nap,” which is certainly not much more than beer-and-pizza money every month.

I’m talking about making hundreds of thousands of dollars kind of money. In the past, making a big bestseller list, particularly in the top ten, meant earnings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars on that particular book.

Now, as Author Earnings showed this month, traditionally published authors who make a big bestseller list are often not making as much money at all. That’s why so many writers, from Doug Preston on down, are shouting about the significant loss of revenue, and how writers won’t be able to make a living soon. They’re right—from their niche perspective.

Yes, their sales are down, but as I discovered last month while working on another project, that might not be the traditionally published bestsellers’ only problem. They signed bad contracts (or maybe just traditional contracts). The ebook royalty provision in many of their contracts are particularly onerous, because traditionally published bestsellers of the old-school variety were told (and believed) that there would be no money in ebooks.


That part of this equation I got a long time ago. I’ve been blogging about it for a while.

The part that I have trouble wrapping my brain around is this one: A writer can make 1990s bestseller money without hitting a major traditional bestseller list.

Let me point this to you clearly: A indie writer can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and not sell hundreds of thousands of copies of one title.

I’m so used to old publisher math that it makes my brain hurt. When, in reality, the old publisher math was the thing that was screwed up.

Let me first use an example from the history of the music industry book I’ve been reading, because it’s expressed so clearly. That book, for those of you who missed last week, is Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, by Greg Kot, published in 2009 in hardcover by Scribner. To my everlasting irritation, Kot does not footnote, so I can only cite him as the source. This, on p. 62, is about Prince’s foray into producing his own music in the 1990s.

Crystal Ball sold out its 250,000 copy pressing in 1998, at prices ranging from $30 to $50, with Prince keeping up to 95 percent of the profit on copies he sold through his website. With [his old label] Warner Bros. he would have kept 10 percent, and then only after recoupable expenses had been deducted.

The difference between 10% of $30 and 90% of $30 is $3 versus $27. You make a boatload more money on fewer copies sold when you take home most of the paycheck.

Indie writers generally don’t make 90%. They make 70% or so if they go through one of the online ebookstores. So a writer who sells 10,000 copies of a $3.99 ebook in the space of one year will make almost $28,000 on that single title—which won’t seem like much to the folks who think in hundreds of thousands of sales of a single title.

But many indie writers working now have published more than one book. Some have ten or twenty or more. But let’s look at the 10-book writer. Let’s assume that writer writes only novels, and all are priced at $3.99. And let’s assume that the sales of each title are as follows:

Book 1: 10,000

Book 2: 7,000

Book 3: 5,000

Book 4: 3,000

Book 5: 2,000

Book 6: 5,000

Book 7: 2,000

Book 8: 6,000

Book 9: 5,000

Book 10: 5,000

In the space of a year, that writer has sold 50,000 copies of her books. At $2.97 per copy, the writer has made almost $140,000. New York Times bestseller money (not accounting for the agent’s cut) for a single title of a hardcover novel priced at $20—if (and only if) that book sold 70,000 copies and did so relatively quickly. That book wouldn’t hit a list if those 70,000 copies sold over a year. They’d have to sell in the space of a month.

If the traditional writer earned $140,000 on a mass market paperback—a form that’s dying because traditional publishing is strangling it, the writer would have had to sell nearly 156,000 copies of that single book.

Conversely, if our indie writer sold 156,000 of a $3.99 single title, she would earn $435,240.

It took me a while to understand this. It has taken me a long time to equate sales that wouldn’t even kiss a bestseller list in the old days and hundreds of thousands in earnings. (For example, if I sold 30,000 copies of a romance novel in ebook this month, like I did with my first romance, I would make nearly $105,000, not whatever it was back in the year 2000. I know I didn’t earn out my advance, which was nowhere near $105,000.)

I get the math. I do. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s the paradigm shift that’s causing my old publishing brain issues. Indie writers and traditional publishers talk about books in different ways.

Indie writers talk about “lifetime earnings” and “lifetime sales” of all of their book titles. Traditional publishers, who are focused on next month’s releases, talk about the sales of a single title in a single quarter.

I know that. I’ve blogged about it. But when I see indie writers say they are bestsellers and they earn low-to-mid six figures in one year, my traditionally trained brain translates that into low-to-mid six figures on one title. And that’s not true. Indie writers are talking about their overall earnings for one year, the way that (ahem) real businesses do.

Real businesses don’t parse out their profits by widget. If Widget One sells better than the rest of the widgets combined, that particular detail is usually buried in the stock report because that means the widget-maker is in trouble should Widget One decline or have problems or move to another publisher (Oops. I mean widget maker).

But traditional writers have to work one widget at a time. Most traditionally published writers have no idea what their lifetime sales are because they’re hard to parse from the royalty statements. (Deliberately hard to parse, I might add.) Dean used to total his sales from traditional publishing years ago, and stopped around 2009 (Hmmm, the start of indie publishing) with, I believe, 17 million books sold. I have no idea what my traditional sales are or my current ones, although we just hired someone to help us with all of the math for 2015.

Hybrid writer Caridad Pineiro just announced that she hit one million books sold [link] over her entire career. That’s indie and traditional. I’ve seen other indie writers do the same kind of thing.

The best promotion I saw recently, and I can’t find it as I’m searching right now, is a banner across a website for a book series that listed 250,000 copies of the series had sold.

That’s what the old bestseller lists used to tell us. They used to tell us that books sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies range to a lot of fans. Bestseller lists don’t say that any more, which is why a marketer like Underwood is having so much trouble with the new dynamic.

We need new ways to convey that a writer or a series or a book has a big following. The indie writers are working on that, and are coming up with a variety of ways of doing it. Whether or not that translates into sales will remain to be seen.

In the meantime, if your book hits one of those subgenre bestseller lists, pat yourself on the back. You’ve now got some free advertising going. It might not be much—it might only take 3 sales per week to hit that list—but those 3 sales add up over time. Remember “Cat Nap.” A little bit here and a little bit there adds up, especially if you have a lot of books.

And remember, when you indie publish, you will make a lot more money on each sale than your traditionally published counterparts. And you will keep your copyrights, and be able to earn throughout that book’s lifetime, unlike so many traditionally published writers.

Yeah, you can put up a book about your foot and make it hit a bestseller list in a matter of minutes. That’s a weird aspect of the new world. But you can also write books you want to write, about things you love, and make a really good living—a better living than you would make if you sold that book into traditional publishing. A much better living.

That’s partly why Dean was chuckling the other night. Because someone finally showed that bestseller lists no longer matter in the old way. Those lists have different uses now—uses that traditional folk like Underwood don’t see yet.

But indie writers do. And we’re using them. And they’re selling our books, one little piece of advertising at a time.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for years know I use it to work out my understanding of changes in the industry. This post is one of those examples.

If you find the post—or recent posts—useful in anyway, please leave a tip on the way out.


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“Business Musings: Bestselling Feet And Other Thoughts,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/zurijeta.

7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Bestselling Feet And Other Thoughts

  1. Fantastic post. The Bestsellers question of whether to put it on your cover or not is complicated. I have mixed feeling. When you hit an obscure category selling 3-5 books it feels weird to me to see someone add bestsellers to the cover. If they hit the list selling hundreds or thousands or in a less obscure category it feels ok to put bestseller on the cover. I wonder how much I’m affected by the old trad pub model.

    It’s fascinating seeing how your mind works and watch you break out of old thinking into new ways.

    Your post today sold 2 of your books and had me add a recommended book on my wish list.

    Have you thought about getting a Patreon account? I do better supporting people when it’s a monthly automatic charge than post by post PayPal donations.

  2. I’ve been on a couple of those obscure category bestseller lists. They haven’t done much (read anything) to sell any of my books, alas. I’m probably doing a whole bunch of other things wrong or something.

  3. This gives me encouragement to keep going and I know the indie route is the best choice I could have made. I’m sick today but I sat in the big chair and made a inventory list of my projects and I am quite happy with them. I see great potential from all my projects to make a good income from them. It makes me quite excited for the future.

  4. “mass market paperback—a form that’s dying because traditional publishing is strangling it”

    TradPub or diminishing print runs? I have the feeling that the increase of indies doesn’t mesh well with mass market. CreateSpace, for example, doesn’t look like it can print in thin enough paper for a MMPB.

    “If Widget One sells better than the rest of the widgets combined, that particular detail is usually buried”

    My parent, classic management, used to say NOT do tie yourself to a single customer. I think 20% got him nervous. A single product follows the same principle. But that’s “classic” management. We’re so beyond that…!

    Take care.

  5. He believes that everyone who has hit these small bestseller lists and uses “bestselling” author to be a scam artist.
    . . .
    (He’s worried about them because they cut into his business, which is focused around [ahem] hitting bestseller lists.)

    LOL! I read Korda’s post and saw his point, but I thought he was overly harsh. You lay it out quite clearly why he was harsh. People generally are when they feel their own livelihood to be threatened. But your own gentle understanding, Kris, is more sensible (and nicer). Thank you.

    For some newer writers, though, that’s the only encouragement they’ve had on their work. I don’t blame them for owning it.

    My own books pop onto the “SFF > Fantasy > Myths & Legends > Norse & Viking” list intermittently with less than a handful of sales each time. I would feel silly labeling myself a “bestselling author” under those conditions, but I’m happy to see my books on that list for exactly the reason that you state: it’s one more place that readers can find my work.

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